In Which the First Empire in Human History Comes and Goes
THE STORY YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ IS TRUE. ONLY THE UNIVERSITY HAS BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT OUR FUNDING.
JOE [voice-over]: This is the desert. Also called the Fertile Crescent. Now there’s nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. But underneath the sand lies evidence of ancient civilizations. That’s where I come in. I’m an archaeologist. I carry a shovel.
JOE (voice-over): It was Monday, March 13th, 9:05 a.m. I was working off a National Science Foundation grant through the University of Michigan. The chair of the department is Professor Kelly. My partner is Dr. Frank Gannon. My name’s Friday.
JOE: How was your weekend, Frank?
FRANK: Pretty good, Joe. I spent most of it watching basketball.
[The phone rings.]
JOE [answering]: Archaeology, Friday. Yeah. Uh-huh. Um-hum. Hm… Is that right? Yeah. Um-hum. Uh-huh. OK. We’ll get right on it.
FRANK: What’s the matter, Joe?
JOE: We’ve got a 203 on our hands, Frank.
FRANK: You mean an unexplained disappearance of the Akkadian Empire, formed by Sargon in 2370 B.C., which at its peak stretched 800 miles from the Persian Gulf to the headwaters of the Euphrates River in present-day Turkey?
JOE: Yeah. That’s the one.
FRANK: Hard to believe. It was the world’s first empire and it ended for no apparent reason.
JOE: Let’s go check it out.
JOE [voice-over]: 7:17 a.m. After flying to the Habur Plains in Syria, we spoke to a Dr. Glassner.
GLASSNER: Ah yes, the Akkadian Empire. For 100 years between 2300 B.C. and 2200 B.C., Akkadian governors ruled cities all over the Fertile Crescent. Caravans of hundreds of donkeys traveled twelve hours a day or more to and from Armenia, and ships full of timber sailed to Egypt and returned with fish, flax, papyrus, alabaster, lentils, and gold.
JOE: And then what happened?
GLASSNER: No one knows, Dr. Friday.
FRANK: Surely there are theories.
GLASSNER: Oh, the usual. Overreaching leaders, faltering armies, overuse of farmland, but none of them really fit.
JOE: Mind if we look around?
GLASSNER: Not at all, be my guest.
JOE [voice-over]: 4:21 p.m. After spending 12 years in field research, Frank and I get together to compare notes.
JOE: What have you found?
FRANK: It looks like the population in the north abandoned their homes and moved south into the cities, overtaxing water and food supplies and leading to urban chaos. But I still don’t understand why.
JOE: Take a look at these northern soil samples for the period between 2300 and 2200 B.C.
FRANK: Everything looks fine.
JOE: Now take a look at these soil samples from the following 300 years.
FRANK: Hmm… this soil has very few earthworm holes but lots of wind-blown fine dust. It must have had almost no water in it. If the north dried out, then the wheat, barley, and sheep that provided the empire with wealth would have disappeared. Of course! Climate change destroyed the Akkadian Empire. Should’ve been obvious from the start.
The story you have just read is true. Only the university has been changed to protect our funding.
Upon arrival back in Ann Arbor, Friday and Jones wrote up their results and submitted a series of papers to the American Journal of Archaeology.
Explaining the disappearance of the Akkadian Empire is rewardable by not less than tenure and not more than promotion to full professor.
Reprinted from the science humour book A Briefer History of Time, copyright 1999 by Eric Schulman. Used with permission.